Chukkat: Passing Through

Kings are often synonymous with their countries in the Bible. For example, in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”), the king of Edom is simply called “Edom”, and when he refuses to give the Israelite permission to pass through his country, he says: You shall not pass through me. (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:18)

We all have rules about other people entering our personal space. Whether our personal space is an inch or an arm-length away from our bodies, we only want people we are intimate with to enter that zone. When anyone else, however benign, comes too close, it feels like an invasion.

In the Torah, the king of Edom acts as though his personal space covers his entire country. After all, he is Edom. He gives no reason for refusing permission for the Israelites to pass through him, and there is no obvious political reason. Although the Israelites have  601,730 fighting men, they are planning to conquer Canaan, not Edom.

Moses sent messengers from Kadeish to the king of Edom: Thus says your brother Israel: “You know all the hardships that have found us. Our forefathers went down to Egypt, and we dwelled in Egypt many years, and the Egyptians were bad to us and to our forefathers. And we cried out for help to God, and God listened to our voice, and sent a messenger and brought us out from Egypt. And hey! We are in Kadeish, a town at the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through a field nor a vineyard, nor will we drink water from a well. On the king’s road we will go; we will not turn aside to the right or the left, until we have passed through beyond your territory.” (Numbers 20:14-17)

Kadeish = making holy.

Edom = a large Semitic kingdom south of the Dead Sea, including the mountain range of Seir; a variant of the word adom = red.

According to Genesis/Bereishit, Edom was Esau’s nickname, and became the name of the country he founded. Esau was the brother of Jacob, who became known as Israel. When Moses calls Edom and Israel brothers, he reminds the king that the Israelites are not only fellow Semites, but family. Edom should treat Israel like a brother, feeling empathy for its abuse at the hands of Egypt, and recognizing that God is on the Israelites’ side. By sending his message from Kadeish, rather than any other town on the border, Moses might even be hinting that Israel and Edom are both holy.

His request could hardly be more polite and humble. He does not want to disturb Edom; his goal is to get the Israelites into Canaan, the land God promised them.

The first time the Israelites reached the border of Canaan, 38 years before, they refused to cross it, because they did not trust God to help them take the land.  (See my blog post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.) God sentenced them to spend a total of 40 years in the wilderness, while the mistrustful generation died off. In this week’s Torah portion, the people have served their time, and the 120-year-old Moses takes responsibility for getting the next generation to Canaan, even though he knows he will die before they cross over.

This time, God does not tell Moses where the Israelites should cross. Nor does Moses ask God. On his own, Moses decides to avoid the southern border and lead his people around the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, so they can enter Canaan from the northeast, across the Jordan River. The first part of this route crosses the kingdom of Edom, which lies south of the Dead Sea.

But Edom said to him: You shall not pass through me, lest I go out with the sword to oppose you. (Numbers 20:18)

Then the children of Israel said to him: We will go up on the high path, and if we drink your water, I myself or my livestock, then I will give their price. Only nothing will happen. On foot I will pass through it. (Numbers 20:19)

The change from plural to singular in Moses’s second request implies that he identifies with the children of Israel in the way a king identifies with his country. Moses gives up on the convenient road through the farmland of Edom, and asks permission to take the high path over the Seir mountains. Perhaps he thinks the king would find this road less threatening because it does not pass near the Edom’s capitol.  Moses also gives the king of Edom a financial incentive by offering to pay for water. But Edom still feels as if his personal space is threatened.

And he said: You shall not pass through! And Edom went out to oppose him, with a serious fighting-people and a strong hand. And Edom refused to let Israel pass through his territory, and Israel turned away from him. (Numbers 20:20-21)

Moses accepts that the king of Edom does not consider the children of Israel close enough relatives to welcome them into his personal space. Instead of fighting about it, he makes his disgruntled people march over a much longer route. They circle all the way around Edom, going south almost as far as the Gulf of Aqaba, before finally heading north again toward the Jordan River and Canaan.

When do you let someone “pass through” your personal space, coming uncomfortably close before leaving again? When do you insist on passing through someone else’s personal space?

These questions are easy in some settings, such as a medical office, or an elevator in which all the passengers come from the same culture. It can be harder to decide whether to let someone in through your front door. And I often find myself puzzled by the question of whether to hug someone when we say hello or goodbye. I watch my friends and acquaintances to see if they are stepping forward with their hands rising, or keeping their distance.  To be polite, I need to match them—and they need to match me.

I feel invaded when I get a greeting-hug from a stranger, or an acquaintance I don’t like.  I don’t want to let them pass through my personal space. Unfortunately, a few of the people I want to keep at arm’s length are my relatives, and American culture assumes that relatives are intimate.

I can empathize with the king of Edom refusing passage to Israel, even though the Israelites and Edomites have the same great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. To Edom, these people from Egypt are strangers.

And I admire Moses for respecting the king of Edom, and turning away after the king rejects his second polite request. Civilized life requires good boundaries for everyone.

Yet the Israelites are on their way to Canaan, which they conquer by the sword in the book of Joshua. If the old generation had trusted God and crossed the southern border of Canaan when God told them to, 38 years before, would God have arranged for the Canaanites to surrender without bloodshed?  Maybe when the Israelites try again, they have to invade Canaan with battles and sieges because they no longer have God’s full support. Yet they do not give up on the land God promised them, 40 years before. After all, if 601,730 of them are men over 20, the whole population must number at least two million. Two million people need a land. And God promised their parents the land of Canaan.

So in the book of Joshua, the Israelites cross into the personal space of the Canaanite peoples, and insist on staying. Their desperation for a homeland leads to war.

In a just world, every family would have its own home, and every people would have its own country, uncontested. In a just world, every border would be clear, and it would be easy for people to respect each other’s boundaries. But we do not live in a just world. God is not fixing the world for us, so our responsibility is to fix the world for each other. I know I can have only a small effect on the world, but it does make a difference if I treat other humans with respect.

May we all learn to respect boundaries, to compromise without giving up our journey, and to seek peace, like Moses.

2 thoughts on “Chukkat: Passing Through

  1. A good parenting lesson hides in this wise post. Children need parents to show them by example how to set boundaries, detect boundaries, and politely negotiate crossing them. Unfortunately, usually this process is intuitively and covertly enacted, and wounds and warfare ensue.

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